Sidney Poitier: The Comedies

The first thing we think of when the name of Sidney Poitier (b. 1927) is mentioned is his pioneering role as Hollywood’s first African American leading man, especially in integrationist dramas of the Kennedy-Johnson era. We think of him especially in The Defiant Ones (1959), Porgy and Bess (1959), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), Lillies of the Field (1963), A Patch of Blue (1965), and those three blockbuster movies of the landmark year of 1967: To Sir With Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Where to go from there? As the integrationist era gave way to more vehement progressivism in a large segment of the culture during the late ’60s and early ’70s, Poitier was in a little bit of a bind. The trail he had blazed had been followed by many African American directors and artists, and the genre nicknamed “blaxploitation” became a force in Hollywood. It’s a handy term to use, though it’s somewhat imprecise and sometimes unfair: the films associated with this movement weren’t always exploitive, some were brilliant, some were terrible, some were made entirely by African Americans, some were made by greedy whites cashing in on a trend, some were genuinely progressive, some perpetuated stereotypes, etc etc etc. One thing that happened was African American artists began to become cast (or cast themselves) as leads in traditional genres. Poitier, for example, continued to play his cop character in They Call Me Mr. Tibbs (1970) and The Organization (1971). And his directorial debut was the western Buck and the Preacher (1972), in which he co-starred with activist and calypso singer Harry Belafonte. In a truly unexpected development, though, Poitier went on from there to direct a series of very silly, commercial comedies, and that is our text for today. Given that he was a man known supremely for his “relevance” and “significance” it would seem to be a major left turn (haha, or perhaps better described as a turn to the right). But flying above it all one can identify the elephant in the sky: the next step for African Americans in Hollywood was actual empowerment, and among other things, that can mean helming your own projects. It is hard enough to find yourself in charge of ANY Hollywood movie, let alone a risky one. Poitier decided to enhance his standing by making popular, crowd-pleasing pictures, which some have claimed subtly parody blaxploitation.

Uptown Saturday Night (1974)

I grew up on this film; it was frequently shown on TV when I was a kid, so it was easy to take it for granted. I recently re-watched it on the Criterion Channel after a spell of many decades and was amazed at what a rare combination of elements it possessed — and how much I enjoyed it. Basically, Poitier and Bill Cosby make a sort of Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy style comedy team, with Poitier, naturally, as the straight man. They play a couple of working stiffs who sneak out on their wives to go to an after hours club, where they are robbed, embroiling them in a lengthy comical voyage into the criminal underworld — which would be scary, if it weren’t played broadly for comedy. The all-star cast is especially rewarding. In addition to the two stars, there is Harry Belafonte in a surprisingly hilarious characterization as a gangster, Harold Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers also chewing the scenery, Flip Wilson (then extremely hot from his TV variety show) as a Preacher (one of his popular characters), Richard Pryor (who’d finally strike it really big the following year) as a dodgy private eye, Roscoe Lee Browne as a slippery Congressman, Paula Kelly (who passed away just a few days ago) as his wife Leggy Peggy, as well as Calvin Lockhart, Rosalind Cash, and other familiar faces of the era. The film was a hit, resulting in two follow-ups with the same formula.

Let’s Do It Again (1975)

Though Poitier’s and Cosby’s characters have different names and live in a different city (Atlanta) in this film, it’s by the same team as Uptown Saturday Night: same stars and director, same producer (Melville Tucker) and same writer (Richard Wesley). In this one, the pair want to stage a boxing match to raise money for their lodge, resulting in a road trip to New Orleans. In addition to the two leads, Lockhart is back playing a character named — wait for it — Biggie Smalls, that’s where the rapper’s name came from. It’s also got John Amos and Jimmy “J.J.” Walker, both hot at the moment from Good Times, as well as Mel Stewart, Ossie Davis, and (because there must always be a famous singer in the cast apparently) Billy Eckstein! Curtis Mayfield of Superfly wrote the soundtrack, which was performed by the Staple Singers. 

A Piece of the Action (1977)

The third film in this trilogy reflects casts the stars as a couple of low-level crooks who are coerced by police officer James Earl Jones into doing charity work with young people. They come to enjoy living the straight life, but trouble from their crime days bubbles back up, necessitating one last heist. This one also features Ja’Net Dubois of Good Times (who just passed away as well), and Ernest Lee Thomas of What’s Happening! This film contained Poitier’s last acting role for over a decade. He spent the next few years behind the camera.

Stir Crazy (1980)

This blockbuster hit earned ten times as much his previous comedies, yet I don’t recall Poitier ever being advertised or even mentioned as director. It’s not irrelevant — this buddy comedy starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder (who’d previously been teamed in 1976’s Silver Streak) could easily have been a vehicle for Poitier and Cosby. Interestingly though, the black-white prison dichotomy also has echoes of The Defiant Ones. I might have preferred this film with Poitier and Cosby (or Tony Curtis for that matter, ha!) in the roles. I’ve never been a fan of the Pryor-Wilder team-ups. I saw this movie in the cinema when it came out, and at the age of 15 found it pretty mortifying and behind-the-curve. I’m very curious to check it out again to see if new virtues will emerge with the perspective of the ensuing decades. A lot of people love it.

Hanky Panky (1982)

This is the movie that brought Gene Wilder together with Gilda Radner; the pair fell in love and married shortly thereafter. By now, Poitier has abandoned African American themes entirely, although he is still attached to the buddy picture dynamic. This is a Hitchcock style trouble chase road movie where Wilder is suspected of murder, Radner is hunting a killer. Fans of Poitier’s older work will appreciate the inclusion of Johnny Brown (of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, and “Booker” from Good Times) in a small role as a bus driver. At any rate, this movie fizzled, and Poitier pulled away from the movie biz for awhile.

Ghost Dad (1990)

Some must have had high hopes for this movie given that The Cosby Show was still a massive TV hit at the time and it was the return of Poitier after 8 years. But unfortunately Ghost Dad is more in line with Cosby’s then-most-recent film Leonard Part 6 (1987): a famous stinker. Both the critics and the audience were hard on this family comedy about a semi-deceased dad who needs to straighten out his domestic matters before being reunited with his not-quite-dead body (it’s complicated). It was Cosby’s last starring film and Poitier’s last movie as director. Thankfully, after this film he went on to play Thurgood Marshall in Separate But Equal (1991) and Nelson Mandela in Mandela and de Klerk (1997) and other roles more in line with his halcyon youth.

For more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.